Browsing the J. G. Ballard Archives

A glimpse inside the recently acquired J. G. Ballard archive at the British Library
J. G. Ballard

Tim Martin of the Telegraph is given an exclusive tour of the late author's letters and manuscripts, now being catalogued for posterity by the British Library. Among the highlights, manuscripts for Crash and Empire of the Sun, and correspondence between novelist and critic Will Self and science fiction writer Michael Moorcock:
[...] One of the jewels of the archive is Ballard’s annotated typescript for Crash, the semi-sane fantasy of autogeddon and paraphilia that cemented his cult status on its publication in 1973. Its first page, scored with madcap scribbles and red pen revisions, now forms part of an exhibition of the library’s greatest treasures, which includes a specimen of Shakespeare’s handwriting, one of the earliest surviving Bibles, a Beethoven sonata in autograph and the Magna Carta. This might, one imagines, come as rather a shock to the publisher’s reader who famously advised after seeing the Crash manuscript that the author was “beyond psychiatric help”.

Crash is a difficult book to read, one of the few shock novels that retains its power to shock several decades later. “Putting it crudely,” Ballard once said in an interview, “I’m saying, ‘So you think violence is sexy? Well, this is where it leads.” And where it leads, in Crash, is to a seemingly endless blur of speed, death, passionless sex and colour televisions.

The effort of writing the book — which revolves, more or less, around two men who come to find secret erotic pleasure in the injuries from automobile accidents — comes through in Ballard’s frantic typescript, in which sentence after sentence is razored through in red pen as the author revises and revises in search of his trademark emotionless glide.

Annotations in handwriting provide a miniature digest of the novel’s obsessions. “Among the pillars of the overpass” reads one spiky addendum. “Aspiring whores whom we picked up in the twilight world of all-night launderettes and supermarkets on the northern fringes of the airport,” reads another. They might as well be little signs: we are now entering Ballardian Space.

So unblinkingly weird and aggressive is Crash’s published text that it’s amusing to see the writer sifting possibilities. One can imagine him chuckling at the mad, adjectival excess of the scene, later discarded, in which his narrator pictures Jackie Kennedy “struck within her limousine by aggressive youths driving stolen cars on suicide courses through breaking police cordons, car after car hitting her limousine at every angle and forming an immense pyre from which her unburnt vulva is snatched from the flames”.

And it’s strangely endearing to find, in the margin of some of his most extreme passages, the capitalised note-to-self “STRESS GOOD ASPECTS”. Interestingly, too, the narrator’s name is given as Charles N throughout this second draft, suggesting that only late in the day did the author provocatively decide to rechristen him James Ballard.

Another of the archive’s treasures is an original manuscript of Empire of the Sun, the semi-autobiographical novel about Shanghai after the Japanese invasion of China that was Ballard’s passport into the mainstream.

In contrast to Crash, this manuscript, written through in blue pen on single sides of paper and containing numerous alternate passages and revisions, is a more stately affair. Surrounding it in the archive is a wealth of material that Ballard acquired from the Lunghua Camp in Shanghai, where he and his parents were held after the Japanese invasion. Compiled by the head of the residents’ association, a friend of Ballard’s father, the documents comprise memos, blueprints and harrowing scraps of information, such as the meticulously plotted, inexorably declining graph that measures the prisoners’ food supply dwindling to starvation as the war dragged on.

Letters and notebooks also form part of the collection. The letters, exchanged with friends such as Michael Moorcock and Will Self, as well as with interested fans and researchers, are still under library lockdown until data protection issues have been addressed. The slim handful of spiral-bound reporter’s notebooks is likewise yet to be catalogued, but a quick flick through suggests that these will be some of the most revealing documents. [Read the article]

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